Business and development

Improving conditions for women workers has a domino effect

Providing training, health-care and childcare to female workers has an impact that stretches beyond the factory floor.

Comment | 11 March 2014
By Dan Rees, Director of Better Work

The world's clothes are mostly made by female workers. Typically, they are young, with limited education, and live in developing countries. It has been well documented that working conditions across garment industries are in much need of improvement. Yet these jobs are important. In their world, paid factory work can provide a better alternative to workers than other options available, such as unpaid family agriculture or domestic work. But is this work a catalyst for female empowerment or a better life for women?

With Better Work, a joint project of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), we have a presence in more than 900 garment factories, employing one million workers across Cambodia, Vietnam, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Haiti, Jordan and Indonesia, with a programme in Bangladesh on the way.

Our latest research from Vietnam shows that a garment job for a woman is a positive development but by virtue of its existence it does not necessarily result in empowerment or even equality. Recent years have seen significant and sustained improvements in Vietnam's industry conditions, but as is often the case improvements for women are lagging behind.

Around 80% per cent of Vietnam's 700,000 factory workers are women. Women tend to be sewers and helpers, while men are usually in higher paid occupations such as cutters and mechanics, and men are three times more likely than women to be supervisors. Women tend to work longer hours than men and are less likely to be promoted or receive training (even when they have been working at the factory longer than men).

Women are also in poorer health, and women’s hourly wages (excluding bonuses) are, on average, about 85 per cent of men’s wages. Female Vietnamese garment workers also report less leisure time than men, because gender dynamics at home stay the same and they end up working full time while keeping up their full time responsibilities in the home.

These findings are disappointing but also pave the way for an enormous development opportunity. Providing good conditions for women workers has an impact that stretches significantly beyond the factory floor. IMF research finds that some countries miss out on up to 27 per cent growth per capita due to gender gaps in the labour market.

Improved working conditions for women has a domino effect, leading to greater investments in children’s health and education and household income. For example in Vietnam, family remittances from workers in the factories where we work are increasing over time: 70 per cent of workers send money to family members, and women send home 24 per cent more than men.

Improving the livelihoods of garment workers is the right thing for the industry to do. But, ultimately, factory work will not be empowering for women workers unless the disadvantages they often face are tackled head on. Paid work can and should create opportunities for women to realize their rights, raise their voice and develop their skills.

We know what works

A considerable share of the female garment workforce has young children and appropriate childcare and health facilities can provide them with essential support and makes business sense. A factory in Vietnam, which established a kindergarten and health clinic for workers found that this investment reduced staff turnover and absenteeism, contributed to a fall in industrial disputes, saved costs and sustained productivity over several years.

Additionally, the IFCs WINVEST initiative is gathering and creating further evidence of the business benefits of investing in women and removing the barriers to their full participation in the workplace.

Women need access to independent workers organizations that can empower them and represent their choices and interests in the workplace. Trade unions must be able to form, organize and to bargain on behalf of workers. Barriers that prevent them from doing so should be removed. By their own admission, workers organizations also have work to do to better represent women workers.

Fruitful communication and negotiation between management and workers is needed for a productive and safe workplace. We provide advice and training for example, to equip supervisors with the skills to resolve disputes and for workers and managers to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions. Our training also targets future supervisors, helping promote young women toward leadership positions within their workplaces.

There is a huge development and business opportunity to grasp by investing in good jobs for women and by providing women with the support they need to realize their rights and their full potential in the workplace. We know what to do. Let’s do it!

A version of this article appeared in The Guardian online’s Global Development Professionals Network.